Earlier this year when Phil Mickelson converted a 54-hole lead at the PGA Championship into an improbable sixth major victory, a streak followed in his wake.
In the three months that followed, sleeping on the Saturday night lead ended in heartbreak. There were 14 consecutive events — starting with Jason Kokrak overtaking Jordan Spieth at Colonial and ending when Patrick Cantlay won the BMW Championship in a playoff over Bryson DeChambeau — where the 54-hole leader or co-leader didn’t win the tournament.
Some of them were collapses. Poor Chesson Hadley coughed up a four-stroke lead at Congaree and lost by one after a final-round 75. Some of them were less surprising, like when Louis Oosthuizen, Mackenzie Hughes and Russell Henley all fell apart at different junctures on Sunday at the U.S. Open. Oosthuizen couldn’t hold on again at the Open Championship a month later, this time his demise coming much earlier in the day.
All summer long, in all various forms, 54-hole leaders fell by the wayside. It’s even carried into the fall as Sahith Theegala, Maverick McNealey and Rickie Fowler have recently failed to secure victories as Sunday frontrunners.
Not only is winning harder, but the reward is disproportionately large compared to playing nearly as well but finishing a shot or two behind the leader.
According to statistician Justin Ray, only 34 percent of winners on the PGA Tour last season held or co-held the 54-hole lead. It was the lowest percentage in the past 40 years.
Now, maybe this is simply an anomaly. But there are some deserving theories to be heard for why holding a 54-hole lead has become more difficult in recent memory.
Before getting to those, there is important background information to get on the table: the golf world generally has a mutated perspective of what it means to be leading a tournament.
In other sports — let’s use the example of a football team that is leading by a field goal through three quarters — the leading team’s win probability is usually going to be above 50 percent because there are only two teams playing at the same time. We tend to apply that same logic to golf despite there being more players, which brings everyone’s probability down.
We’re in a world of live betting based on models from oddsmakers and we also have win probability charts from outlets like Data Golf. There are times when a player goes into a final round with the lead and their probability of winning is less than 30 percent.
The reality is that most golf tournaments head into Sunday as contests of “Who will play the best out of this handful of guys?” rather than “Can the leader defend his lead?” In most cases, the 54-hole leader must play better than the field average that day to win the tournament.
The leader usually has the best chance to win, but that’s all it is: a chance.
Having said that, 34 percent is a particularly low number for leaders to convert over the course of a season. There are a few other variables that could help explain why closing out a lead is slowly getting more difficult over time.
Theory No. 1 — The PGA Tour has settled in at more “birdie fest” venues where making pars isn’t good enough to protect a lead.
Some of the new courses we’ve seen have shown that the PGA Tour wants more hosts like TPC Craig Ranch (AT&T Byron Nelson), TPC Twin Cities (3M Open) and Detroit Golf Club (Rocket Mortgage Classic) that will give up boatloads of birdies.
When conditions are softer, there is generally less separation on a leaderboard. There’s a reason why the Phoenix Open has ended in a playoff four of the last six years and we still haven’t had a U.S. Open playoff since 2008. So not only are leaderboards jammed with, on occasion, a dozen or more players in the mix, but the leader of that group is being asked to shoot something in the 60s, at the very least, to win the event.
Course setup also usually caters more to chasers on the weekend as tees tend to be moved up on a par-4 or two to make it drivable, creating more variability in scoring.
Getting a lead and aiming for the center of greens doesn’t get you much when there are multiple players in pursuit aiming at every flag. One of those players is bound to make a run.
Theory No. 2 — Increased coverage and reactionary media has ratcheted up the pressure.
Every single PGA Tour event is televised, and most begin their coverage before the leaders tee off on Sunday afternoon.
Each player-caddie conversation is heightened, and every shot is immediately celebrated or scrutinized on social media. That’s been true for the past handful of years, but it has really become highlighted recently as many people actively choose to consume golf on social media rather than sitting down to watch a broadcast without any further context.
Players may not be checking their phones at night during tournaments, but they would be lying if they said the increased attention didn’t alter their nerves.
Everyone saw what happened to Jon Rahm at the 2019 Players Championship when he didn’t follow caddie Adam Hayes’ guidance to lay up out of the fairway bunker on the par-5 11th hole. Rahm came away looking foolish, throwing away the tournament on the final nine. He was criticized heavily by thousands of people as it happened — and in the aftermath of it happening.
Rahm has put himself back in that pressure-cooker countless times and knows how to handle it better at this point, but not every 54-hole leader is used to that level of scrutiny. Some have played their entire careers in relative anonymity. It’s reasonable to think the extra attention gets the mind racing for some players.
Theory No. 3 — With more elite players threatening to win, the value of a victory has never been higher.
Our Ron Green Jr. wrote a column this week in Global Golf Post talking about how multi-win seasons are starting to vanish. It can happen, but it’s hard to see a player winning five times in a season when a dozen or more top-tier talents can reasonably hope to be a top-three player in the world next year.
Rickie Fowler has a PGA Tour victory more recently than Xander Schauffele does. It took Tony Finau more than five years between his first and second win. Dustin Johnson normally starts his year in Kapalua at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, but he isn’t in the field — that would require winning a tournament, which the world No. 2 didn’t do last season.
Not only is winning harder, but the reward is disproportionately large compared to playing nearly as well but finishing a shot or two behind the leader. That’s especially true for those fighting for status. Winning in the fall portion of the calendar essentially gives a player full status for another three years — the remainder of the 2021-22 season and two subsequent full seasons. Those are massive stakes.
And then there is the other side. Winning a regular PGA Tour event may not affect the lives of top players, but they are judged almost entirely on whether they can win major championships.
That’s been the story of Rory McIlroy’s career for more than seven years.
Maybe the curse of the 54-hole leader is a temporary hex, but these variables add up to it being more difficult to convert. Few players will admit that on a Saturday night before they put their head on the pillow, but it’s hard to ignore the cumulative effect.
We probably won’t see 14 tournaments in a row that go the way of the chasers, but don’t be surprised if this season is another trying year for the leaders.
Top: Phil Mickelson 2021 PGA Championship Maddie Meyer, PGA of America via Getty Images
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